The Man I Was
The Man I Was
It was a small concave mirror on a stand. It magnified the reflected image of my wide open mouth. I carefully studied the new seventeen hundred dollar cap on my upper left canine, the tooth appeared enormous, like a tooth you might expect to see in the mouth of an extinct meat-eating animal.
Perhaps I shouldn't have zeroed in on the tooth as much as I did, but I am the introspective type. Overprotective of myself. I slept badly that night. In the early morning darkness I held my hands in front of me, surprised to see they were darker than the light in the room, yet In the gray light of dawn I convinced myself they were perfectly normal human hands, and I assumed they were mine. There was a wedding ring on the third finger of the left hand, which I wore to ward off feminine entanglement. It was a strong hand, more suited for physical labor than the hand of a purchasing agent for Aetna Insurance. It was the hand of a man of action. They seemed vaguely unfamiliar. I threw the covers aside and decided I would check them out.
A surprise awaited me when I looked in the bathroom mirror in the bathroom. The man looking back at me was not me. He was dressed as I was, as though he'd been up only a few moments ... undershirt and pants ... he lathered his face in preparation for shaving just as I was, yet It seemed as though I was looking through a wall into another man’s bathroom instead of a mirror ... at another man ... looking back at me.
Our movements were identical – orchestrated, and as I looked at him out of the corner of my eye I could see he was doing the same, we were definately not the same man.
As you may have gathered I am a man grown used to seeing myself in the mirror and the slightest deviation from my usual appearance is an immediate crisis. This man was a stranger. I wondered, as I stared at him open-mouthed, if I was unknown to him as well. He, apparently wondered too, for he stood as open-mouthed as I was.
"Who are you," I asked.
In the same breath, he asked me the identical question.
I had the uneasy feeling that he might be me – that there was no "me" any more, that some strange cosmic glitch had occurred. His voice was not that much different than mine, and it carried an accent similar to mine.
I live alone, and there was no one I could call to share this altogether unique event. My powers of observation were tuned to an extraordinary degree. I noticed he turned on the cold water when I turned on the hot, was that a part of the illusion or was he the kind of man who shaved with cold water in the morning?
I finished quickly in the bathroom, keeping one eye on the stranger and I left the room without a backward glance. My mind was in a turmoil as I continued dressing how would I get through the day in the office? Would Gladys, in the cubicle next to mine, notice the stranger, or was he limited to my bathroom mirror?
Living in a city of seven million souls affords each of us a wealth of anonymity. A man may walk the crowded streets, ride the subways and buses to the end of his days without seeing the same person twice. I felt secure and somewhat invisible during my morning commute – as though I were on the outside looking in. "But what will happen at the office," I thought. If someone stopped by my cubical and looked in, would they feel bound to say, "Where's Quentin this morning – sick again?"
I needn't have worried. Gladys muttered, "Hi, Kane," without batting an eye. To my knowledge she has never used my first name, or anyone else's for that matter. She did a hitch in the National Guard some years back and once told me it was common practice there. Kept things on a chaste and soldierly level, she said.
I peered over the chest high partition that separates our two work spaces and asked her, "Do I look any different today, Gladys?"
She looked up from her ledger with her glasses askew and her upper lip drawn up above her upper front teeth in order to see more clearly. When she does this she is a most unattractive woman. "What'cha do? she asked, "get a haircut?"
"No. C'mon Gladys look closely, notice anything different?"
She shook her head. "To tell you the truth Kane, I don't take that much interest in you in the first place." She shrugged. "We're here eight hours a day – you know how it is, like music in the elevator. You get so you don't know it’s there."
It wasn't very re-assuring, I thought of trying somebody else in the office, but Gladys was the closest person to me and then the thought I had this morning returned. Maybe there was no me. That the man in the mirror really was me after all and I hadn't noticed it before. Maybe I’ve changed, maybe I’m not the man I used to be.
The day passed slowly. The men’s room mirror confirmed the change in me and yet no one at the office had said a word. I wondered if my previous appearance had been so unremarkable and unmemorable that it had been forgotten completely. Even by me.
When five o’clock rolled around, covers were pulled over computers, desk lamps were turned off and the staff gathered at the coat rack. I asked Dierdre in accounts receivable if she’d like a drink before heading home. To my surprise and delight she agreed.
Dierdre is a show stopper. All heads swivel around to watch her whenever she gets up and walks to the files, or the phone, or the john – anywhere walking may take her. It’s like watching one of those poker faced underwear models in action on the runway. As we left I accompanied her at a discreet distance – sort of between her and the curb – and slightly to the rear. I was careful not to lay a hand on her even as a protective gesture, and at the last possible moment I rushed ahead and opened the door to Hurley’s. She gave me the briefest of smiles as she passed. “I wanna sit in the back, it’s darker there,” she said.
I wondered how the man in the mirror would react to that. Diedre, however, set me straight. “Don’t get’cha hopes up Kane,” (had she served time in the military, too?) “The guys in accounting usually stop in Hurley’s for a quickie. I don’t wanna get involved, y’know?”
At least she didn’t tell the waiter, “The usual.” She just said, “I think I’ll have a Manhattan,” and to keep things simple I said, “Make it two.”
She opened her purse and slid an unfiltered cigarette out of a pack of Camels, she looked at me questioningly, “You gonna light me up or what?”
“Yes, of course, where are my manners?” There were no matches on the table and I don’t smoke. She reached in her purse again, pulled out a Zippo and handed it to me.
“You know what to do with this, don’t you?” I lit her cigarette just as the drinks arrived. She glanced at the ring on the third finger of my left hand and slowly shook her head. “You never asked me out for a drink before, Kane. What’s the occasion, your birthday or something?”
I was a little reluctant to bring up my identity crisis. I was afraid it wouldn’t stand up under Dierdre’s scrutiny.
“You married?” she asked.
“No, how about you?”
“I got too much goin’ on,” she said. “Me and two guys I know got an act. Country music. If you got some time over the weekend c’mon down to the Oasis. We’re there Saturday and Sunday.”
“What do you play?”
“A Gibson. Wearin’ pointy boots, skin tight low riders and a blouse with no bra.” She took a sip of her Manhattan and continued. “I play washboard too – when Ronnie’s singing. Whatever it is, the volume’s always turned up to ‘10’”
“Who are the guys?” I asked her.
“Ronnie and Dunce. Dunce plays bass and Ronnie’s lead guitar. Sometimes we have a drummer, but you know how drummers are.”
“Worse. Sometimes he’s so stoned he can’t make his way out on the floor.”
“So. It’s a new start for you, right? I promise I’ll be down to see you. The Oasis you said.”
“That’s right. It’s on Christopher Street. Don’t get there ‘til after ten ... we don’t go on ‘til after ten. There’s a stand-up comedian on before that.”
She finished her Manhattan and since there are no ash trays in Hurley’s she dropped her half smoked Camel in it. “We’re practicing tonight.” She arched her eyebrows. “ ... tryin’ to expand our repertoire. We only have enough numbers for one set.”
“You got a goal then. I wish I did. I envy you, Dierdre, I really do.”
She sat back in her chair and closed her eyes. “I woke up one morning and looked at myself in the mirror. I said to myself, girl, I said... you gotta be somethin’ other than what you are? I was sick of myself. You wanna spend the rest of your life checkin’ claims for Aetna Insurance? Course you don’t! You wanna be somebody else.”
“You bein’ smart or what?”
“No. I mean it, it’s so much like the experience I had this morning.”
She stood up and looked down at me. “Please, I don’t wanna know anything about your experiences. You’ve got your problems, I’ve got mine.”
“But it’s really quite remarkable, the same...”
“Look Quentin Kane... is that really your name? I mean, really, what were your parents thinking of?” She shrugged herself into her coat, fished a subway token out of her purse and slipped it in her side pocket. “I’m not interested. Really I’m not... nothing personal. You’re the most important thing in the world to you, right? It’s the same with me. I got one thing on my mind and that’s gettin’ down to practice with the boys in the band. Nothin’ else.” Her voice had been metallic and toneless, now it softened and she sounded like a child. “I never knew my father. Maybe my mother didn’t either. She worked six days a week skinnin’ chickens for Frank Perdue and got herself drunk every Saturday night. I had guys gettin’ off on me before I was ten years old, before I knew it was a wrong thing to do.” Her voice grew hard again. “I got dead aim on what I’m gonna do the rest of my life, Kane. I can’t let nothin’ get in my way.”
Quite a lady, this Dierdre. As she walked off in that special walk of hers I felt a mixture of envy, shame and an eagerness to see her again. I became aware of the wedding ring I wore on the third finger of my left hand.
I pulled it off and put it in her Manhattan glass along with her cigarette.
“See you Saturday night, Dierdre – Oasis – after 10.” I couldn’t wait to get home and get a good look at that guy in the mirror.
©Harry Buschman 2010